Friday, March 28, 2008

Meditation Can Wish You Well, Study Says

Imaging tests suggest compassion and empathy can be learned traits

THURSDAY, March 27

New research suggests that qualities the world desperately needs more of -- love, kindness and compassion -- are indeed teachable.

Imaging technology shows that people who practice meditation that focuses on kindness and compassion actually undergo changes in areas of the brain that make them more in tune to what others are feeling. ... The study involved 32 people: 16 Tibetan monks and lay practitioners, who had meditated for a minimum of 10,000 hours throughout their lifetime (the "experts"); and 16 control subjects, who had only recently been taught the basics of compassion meditation (the "novices").

The senior author of the paper, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on imaging the effects of meditation, has been collaborating with the Dalai Lama since 1992, studying the brains of Tibetan monks.

For the study, individuals in the control group were instructed first to wish loved ones well-being and freedom from pain, then to wish such benefits to humankind as a whole.

"We looked at whether there were any differences between experts and novices in generating compassion with the idea that a central practice in this tradition [of meditation] is to cultivate these positive emotions," Lutz said. "We wanted to see if there were any differences in the way the brain was reacting."

Each participant was hooked up to a functional MRI both while meditating and not meditating. During each state, the participants heard sounds designed to produce responses: the negative sound of a distressed woman, the positive sound of a baby laughing, and the neutral sound of background noise from a restaurant.

"We showed altered activation in brain circuitry that was previously linked to empathy and perspective-taking or the capacity to understand other's intentions and mental states and, more precisely, the insula was more activated, particularly in response to negative emotional sounds," Lutz said.

In the monks, especially, these areas of the brain were activated even more when they hard the cries of the distressed woman, she said. ...

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